David North
The Heritage We Defend

Khrushchev’s Secret Speech to the Twentieth Congress

The political crisis within the Socialist Workers Party had assumed extremely dangerous proportions by 1956. Almost a decade of steadily worsening isolation had taken a tremendous toll on the party’s cadre.

But then the international labor movement was shaken by two events which shattered the seemingly impregnable edifice of Stalinism: the “secret speech” delivered by Nikita Khrushchev before the delegates of the Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress in February 1956 and the eruption of the political revolution in Hungary eight months later.

No account of the sequence of events leading up to the decision of the SWP to seek reunification with the Pabloites would be coherent, let alone complete, without examining the impact of the Stalinist crisis upon the Trotskyist movement. But Banda all but ignores the events of 1956, making only a fleeting reference to the Hungarian Revolution which is, as usual, both dishonest and cynical: “True to form Cannon, having established his own freedom to manoeuvre with the labor bureaucracy and having disposed of the Cochranite nuisance, was now prepared to do business with Pablo on the basis of a common stand on the Hungarian Revolution and a watering down of the programme of political revolution.”

Let us examine the claim that there was a “common stand” taken by Cannon and the Pabloites on the events of 1956. The SWP would later defend its turn to reunification by claiming, without any justification whatsoever, that the Pabloites’ reaction to Khrushchev’s speech and the Hungarian Revolution indicated a sharp break from their revisionist positions of 1953 and a confluence of the lines of the International Committee and the International Secretariat.

Banda’s acceptance of this position is part of his attempt to deny the principled content of the 1953 split and the real depth of the programmatic differences between Trotskyism and Pabloism. The decision of Cannon and the SWP to bury the 1953 split and seek reunification did not arise out of a confluence of political lines between the ICFI and the Pabloites. Rather, the growing adaptation of the SWP to the milieu of petty-bourgeois radicalism within the United States led Cannon to seek reunification, despite the fact that the SWP’s line on the Khrushchev speech and Hungarian Revolution was fundamentally different from that of the Pabloites.

The SWP’s attitude toward the Pabloites changed at the point where the class logic and practical needs of its adaptation to nonproletarian forces in the United States—which assumed a malignant form with the adoption of the “regroupment” strategy—came into direct conflict with and could not be reconciled with a formally correct international opposition to the revisionists. Let us now examine this process in detail, beginning with the astonishing speech made by Khrushchev in February 1956.

For nearly three decades, Stalin had been depicted as “the Father of the people,” “the Lenin of our era,” the source of all wisdom and the guarantor of all of nature’s bounties. The titles he was accorded in the pages of the Soviet press would have embarrassed an oriental despot.

The deification of Stalin was not confined to the Soviet Union. Among the most dedicated and loud-mouthed priests of the Stalin cult were the leaders of the American Communist Party, including its present-day general secretary, Gus Hall. A few years before 1956, when William Z. Foster, a founder and longtime leader of the CP, wrote his autobiography, he chose the unfortunate title From Bryan to Stalin. But then, three years after the death of “the genial Stalin,” Nikita Khrushchev ascended a podium to tell the world that his former boss was a bloodthirsty and murdering tyrant:

Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient co-operation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed this concept or tried to prove his viewpoint, and the correctness of his position, was doomed to removal from the leading collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation. …

Stalin originated the concept “enemy of the people.” This term automatically rendered it unnecessary that the ideological errors of a man or men engaged in a controversy be proven; this term made possible the usage of the most cruel repression, violating all norms of revolutionary legality, against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin. … The formula “enemy of the people” was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals.

It is a fact that many persons who were later annihilated as enemies of the party and people had worked with Lenin during his life.[1]

Thirty-three years had passed since Leon Trotsky had initiated the struggle against the growth of the Stalinist bureaucracy and its usurpation of political power from the Soviet working class. Twenty years had passed since Stalin had initiated the blood purges which resulted in the physical annihilation of two generations of revolutionary Marxists who had led the October Revolution and built the Soviet state. Sixteen years had passed since a GPU assassin had driven an ice pick through the skull of Leon Trotsky, whose name had been proclaimed anathema by the Kremlin and its satellite Stalinist organizations throughout the world.

But suddenly, in February 1956, the implacable struggle that Trotsky had waged against Stalin and the entire bureaucratic social caste and the Bonapartist system that the dead dictator personified was being vindicated. Who else had told the truth about Stalin and Stalinism? Who else had analyzed the political and social origins of the monstrous bureaucratic tyranny? Who else had uncovered the inner contradictions embodied in Stalinism, exposed the incompatibility of bureaucratic rule with the objective needs of economic planning on the basis of nationalized industry and demonstrated the inevitability of a political revolution against the bureaucracy? The specter of Trotsky and Trotskyism—not only as the great accuser from the past, but above all as the conscious expression of the Soviet proletariat’s pent-up hatred of the bureaucracy and its revolutionary program of struggle—haunted the Twentieth Congress.

It took several weeks for the news of Khrushchev’s speech to cross the borders of the Soviet Union. Leaders of local Stalinist parties were dumbfounded as they read the text in the capitalist press. At first, they waited for the expected official denial from the Kremlin, a technical reprieve that would allow the Stalinist hacks to go on lying in front of their membership and the working class. When no denial was forthcoming, the Stalinist organizations were thrown into turmoil.

For the Fourth International, the Twentieth Congress was more than a vindication of its past struggles. It was a monumental verification of its program and perspective as well as a devastating refutation of those revisionists who had seen no future for Trotskyism except as an appendage of the supposedly mighty Stalinist organizations.

The Khrushchev revelations underscored the significance of the split that had occurred inside the Fourth International in 1953. The objective role of Pabloism clearly had been to politically disarm the Fourth International at the very point when the crisis of the Soviet bureaucracy was rapidly maturing and creating the conditions for smashing Stalinism in the international workers’ movement.

With its impressionistic theories of “generations” of deformed workers’ states and self-reforming bureaucracies, Pabloism had served to bolster illusions in the Stalinists and to deflect the struggle against them. Its proposals for organizational liquidation, political capitulation dressed up as a unique form of “entryism,” meant, in practice, calling off the struggle against the Stalinists when they were the most vulnerable.

The ramifications of the split, and the depth of the political chasm separating Trotskyism from Pabloism, were revealed in the very different reactions of the International Committee and the International Secretariat to the Khrushchev revelations.

When James P. Cannon stood before an audience in Los Angeles on the evening of March 9, 1956 to deliver a speech entitled “The End of the Stalin Cult,” Cannon had every right to invoke the memory of all those countless revolutionists who had fallen in the struggle against the Soviet bureaucracy. Twenty-eight years earlier, he himself had begun the struggle for Trotsky’s views and had been expelled from the Communist Party. Now, one month past his sixty-sixth birthday, he explained the meaning of Khrushchev’s speech:

Three years ago Stalin, the bloodthirsty tyrant, the betrayer of revolutions and the murderer of revolutionists, “the most sinister criminal in the history of mankind,” unfortunately died in bed. Two weeks ago his personally selected and hand-picked heirs, the beneficiaries of his monstrous tyranny and the accomplices of all his crimes, used the occasion of the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party to denounce the cult of Stalin and to declare that his dictatorial rule for twenty years was wrong.

The congress pronouncement is true, as far as it goes. And it is the first official truth that has come out of Moscow for more than thirty years. Truth is a slow starter. Mark Twain said a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on. But the truth has more endurance than the lie, and eventually catches up with it. The truth is on the march again—even in Moscow. …

One of the Moscow correspondents of the Associated Press reports that he asked a congress delegate what would now be done about all those plaster monuments of Stalin standing around in Moscow and all over Russia, and the delegate answered: “The monuments can stand.” But he’s mistaken about that. They will stand for a while until somebody gets the idea for a badly needed road program in the Soviet Union, and looks at all this plaster standing around for no good reason, and says it ought to be put through the rock crusher and ground up into material for concrete. That’s where the monuments of Stalin will eventually end …

Whatever the reason for this action of the Soviet congress, the repudiation of Stalin by his heirs is big news and good news—the biggest news and the best news since the death of Stalin himself three years ago. We can recognize this without exaggerating the significance of the congress action or deceiving ourselves and others about its purpose.

It does not mean the end of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and on the international field. Far from it. The assembled bureaucrats at the Congress, who are the product of the abominable system and the representatives of its privileged beneficiaries, hope to preserve Stalinism by unloading Stalin and repudiating the hateful cult associated with his name. But the repudiation of the cult may very well mark the beginning of the end of the system just the same.[2]

Cannon rejected the view that Khrushchev’s speech represented a movement toward self-reform that in any way invalidated the Trotskyist program for the violent overthrow of the Soviet bureaucracy. He pointed out that Khrushchev defended the political foundations of Stalinism and refused to condemn the “counterrevolution against the heritage of Lenin, which was defended by Trotsky.”

They swear off the cult of Stalin without specifying and repudiating the specific crimes that were committed in the name of that cult; without repudiating the whole theory and practice of Stalinism on a national and international scale since the death of Lenin. They haven’t yet said anything about the long, monstrous record of Stalinism in the international labor movement.

That record includes the betrayal of the Chinese revolution in 1926; and the betrayal of the German workers in 1933, which made possible the victory of Hitler and all its terrible consequences for the German working class and for the people of Europe. They haven’t said anything yet about the betrayal of the Spanish revolution in 1936, and the murder of the Spanish revolutionists by the Stalinist gunmen sent there for that purpose. They haven’t mentioned yet the Stalin-Hitler pact, which precipitated the Second World War.

They haven’t mentioned the policy of social patriotism adopted by all the Stalinist parties allied with the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Under this policy the shameful Stalinists in this country joined the camp of the imperialist masters and became the chief advocates of the no-strike pledge and the most zealous strike-breakers. In the service of Stalin they applauded our prosecution in Minneapolis in 1941—the first prosecution under the Smith Act—and appealed to the unions to refuse contributions to our legal defense.

The Moscow congress didn’t say anything about the betrayal of the revolution in Europe immediately after the war. The French partisans and the Italian partisans had power in their hands, but they were disarmed by the policy of Stalinism. The communist workers were demoralized by the Stalinist policy of collaboration with the bourgeoisie. Representatives of the Communist parties in Italy and France went into bourgeois cabinets and helped to stabilize the regime and stifle the revolution.

They haven’t yet repudiated another typical manifestation of Stalinism here in the United States. That is the present policy of the Communist Party, advising the workers to be good Democrats and join the Democratic Party along with the bankers and the industrialists and the Dixiecrats, and vote for the Democratic Party in order to serve the diplomatic interests of the Kremlin gang.

They have repudiated the cult of Stalin, but they haven’t yet repudiated Stalinism and the crimes of Stalinism. That is something like a professional criminal pleading guilty to spitting on the sidewalk in the hope of avoiding trial on the charge of murder.

The Moscow bureaucrats have made a start—that cannot be denied, or ignored. They have confessed something, but they haven’t confessed enough yet. They said A, but they choked over B. But in the political alphabet, B follows after A, and we can be confident that it will be said in due time. If the heirs of Stalin cannot yet say B, because to do so they would have to repudiate themselves, the Soviet workers, whose burning hatred of every memory of the Stalinist regime is the driving force behind these first partial disavowals will say it for them—and against them.

The repudiation of the Stalin cult at the Moscow congress is an echo in the top bureaucratic circles of the ominous rumble of the coming political revolution in the Soviet Union. Nothing less than a complete political revolution will do there. It is not merely the cult of Stalin as a person, but Stalinism as a political system, that must be repudiated and overthrown. That can be done only by a revolution of the Soviet workers.

The goal of this revolution is the unconditional repudiation of the Stalinist theory of “socialism in one country,” which was the motivation of all the crimes and betrayals, and the reaffirmation of the Lenin-Trotsky program of proletarian internationalism; the overthrow of the Stalinist police state in the Soviet Union and the restoration of Soviet democracy; the abolition of the privileged caste; a complete review of the frame-up trials and purges and a vindication of their victims. These are the demands and the program of the political revolution in the Soviet Union.

The Moscow congress was not the revolution, and it does not signify the restoration of Soviet democracy, as fools and traitors may suggest, but it was an incident on the road to it. A faltering, hesitant reflection in the Soviet tops of a mighty revolutionary impulse from below; a promise of reform in the police-state regime, a verbal gesture of appeasement in the hope of heading off the storm—that is what the pronouncements of the Moscow congress are really intended to signify. That and nothing more is what is intended.[3]

Already the pressure of alien class forces within the United States was bearing down heavily on the Socialist Workers Party, whose leaders, after nearly a decade of continuous political reaction, economic prosperity and ever-deeper isolation from the mass working class organizations, were increasingly skeptical about the prospects for revolutionary struggle in the United States. But despite this, on that Friday night in March, the old warrior brought his speech to a stirring conclusion:

The perspectives before us are breathtaking. And they are not the perspectives of a dim and distant future, but of the epoch in which we live and struggle now. We should take heart, for we have great allies. The Russian workers, breaking out of the prison of Stalinism and taking the road of international revolutionary action once again; great China and the revolutionary movement of the whole colonial world; and the mighty working class of the United States and Europe—here in these three forces is the invincible “Triple Alliance” which can change the world and rule the world, and make it safe for freedom, peace and socialism.

The end of the Stalin cult, which is a part of the revolutionary development in the world, signifies the beginning of the vindication of Trotsky. His theory of revolutionary development is finding confirmation in world events in one country after another—and now, once again, in Russia. All that he foresaw and explained to us, his disciples, is being demonstrated in life as true. And we, who have fought long years under his banner, salute his glorious name again today. We are surer than ever that we have been right. We have more reason than ever to fight without compromise for the full program of Trotskyism. And we have more reason than ever for confidence in victory.

Our victory will be more than the victory of a faction or a party—for the factional and party struggle is and has been the expression of the international struggle of classes. The vindication and victory of Trotskyism will coincide with, and fully express, the victory of the international working class in the struggle against the capitalist exploiters and the Stalinist traitors, for the socialist reorganization of the world.[4]

The tone set by Cannon’s speech was reproduced in a resolution passed by the SWP National Committee in April 1956, entitled “The New Stage in the Russian Revolution,” which was clearly directed against the Stalinist conciliationism of the Pabloites:

The groups here and there who decided that Trotskyism had been bypassed by history and that the wave of the future belonged to Stalinism are now confounded by each fresh concession calling the world’s attention to the fact that Trotskyism was the only force that told the truth about Stalinism. The politics of betrayal narrows down for these groups to vying with the worst Stalinist hacks in providing rationalizations for the bureaucracy, painting up the desperate efforts at rehabilitation in face of the mass pressure as “self-reform” of the bureaucracy. Deutscherism, which leaves out the Soviet masses as if the bureaucracy were a rational autonomous power, turns out to be the ideology best suited to assist the demagogy of the Khrushchevs.[5]

In a second speech delivered by Cannon on June 15, 1956 dealing with the Khrushchev revelations, he continued to attack the Pabloite perspective, insisting that the concessions made by the Soviet bureaucracy were merely a desperate attempt to head off the inevitable and unstoppable uprising of the Soviet masses.

The irresistible pressure of the Soviet workers was the power behind the Twentieth Congress. That, comrades, is the key to an understanding of what is taking place. The bureaucrats assembled at that congress had had warning signals of a coming storm, and they began to respond to these signals. The uprising of the East German workers in June 1953, that was followed a month later by a general strike of the Vorkuta slave-labor camp—those tremendous actions under the guns of police-state terror, when workers took their lives in their hands to strike, gave notice of a coming revolutionary storm, just as the general-strike movement of the Russian workers in 1905 gave notice of the first revolution against the Czar. …

We put all our faith in this revolutionary movement of the Soviet workers and no faith whatever in the good intentions of the bureaucratic heirs of Stalin. I think the best way to muddle up the discussion of the new events, and the worst crime against the truth in the discussion opening up now, is to say that the Soviet bureaucrats have already reformed themselves or are in the process of doing so, that they have “mellowed” and that all they need is to be left alone to bring about a gradual elimination of all the hated features of Stalinism and the restoration of a democratic workers’ regime.

If they are trusted and left alone everything will remain basically the same. These bureaucrats are the privileged upper crust. They will never give up their privileges voluntarily. They have to be overthrown like every other privileged group in history had to be overthrown. Trotsky said on this subject twenty years ago, in his great book, The Revolution Betrayed, “No devil ever yet voluntarily cut off his own claws.”[6]

The Pabloites’ response to the denunciation of Stalin was of an entirely different character. Their preoccupation with conflicts within the bureaucracy—which always served as the springboard for their flights of speculative fancy—were more obsessive than ever in 1956. Whereas Cannon insisted that the crisis of the bureaucracy was the manifestation of the revolutionary movement of the working class; that the concessions expressed the fear of the bureaucracy, which remained loyal to Stalinism; that the working class would still have to politically destroy and physically remove the representatives of this privileged caste; and that this required the building of a revolutionary, i.e., Trotskyist, leadership, the Pabloites spun elaborate theoretical webs which were centered on the assumed revolutionary potential of one or another section of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

In the Transitional Program, Trotsky indicated that the revolutionary movement of the working class would tend to produce divisions within the bureaucracy. Its political polarization would generate everything from neofascist elements (“the faction of Butenko”) to those which exhibit revolutionary tendencies (“the faction of Reiss”).

But this observation was entirely subordinate to Trotsky’s central and overriding emphasis on the irreconcilable opposition of the proletariat to the bureaucracy and his insistence on the counterrevolutionary role of the bureaucracy.

Not only did he note that the “revolutionary elements within the bureaucracy” are “only a small minority” who are only able to reflect the interest of the proletariat “passively.” He also warned that the “fascist, counterrevolutionary elements, growing uninterruptedly, express with even greater consistency the interests of world imperialism.”[7]

At any rate, the prospects for the emergence or nonemergence of isolated elements in the bureaucracy sympathetic to the proletariat did not function as a significant factor in the formulation of the strategy and program of the Fourth International.

The Pabloites, on the other hand, based their strategy not on the revolutionary proletariat, but on the political reflection of its struggle within the summits of the Soviet bureaucracy. The historic role of the working class, as far as Mandel and Pablo were concerned, was limited to that of a pressure group on what they considered to be the main historical force for the realization of socialism: the bureaucracy. An editorial in the March 1956 of the Pabloite journal Quatrième Internationale summed up the views of the revisionists:

The bureaucracy is under pressure, in different forms, from a Soviet society liberating itself from the Stalinist yoke. It is beginning to differentiate itself at the top under the influence of these increasing pressures. The future development of this process will be determined by the interaction of this pressure, the direct action of the masses, and the struggle of tendencies within the bureaucracy.

This evolution is only beginning. It would be an unpardonable error to imagine that this evolution will proceed, as before, in a straight line ending quickly with the restoration of real proletarian democracy in the USSR and a “return to Lenin” in domestic as well as foreign policy. To arrive at such a result, it will be necessary to reach a stage where the politicization of the masses, going over to direct action, combines with a sharper differentiation, an actual break, between the developing revolutionary wing and the more and more isolated thermidorean wing of the bureaucracy. This process of political revolution will culminate in the overturn of the bureaucratic regime and the re-establishment of Soviet democracy.[8] (Editorial’s emphasis.)

This was not the Trotskyist theory of political revolution, but a theory of bureaucratic self-reform, abetted by the auxiliary pressure of the proletariat. Pablo and Mandel dished up the “direct action of the masses”—a conveniently flexible phrase that could mean almost anything—alongside of “the struggle of tendencies within the bureaucracy.” The “direct action of the masses,” produces, or rather “combines with” the inner conflict between “the developing revolutionary wing” of the bureaucracy and the “more and more isolated thermidorean wing,” resulting in the restoration of Soviet democracy.

The purpose of these tortured formulations, which bear no resemblance to Trotsky’s simple and direct explanation of the mechanics of the political revolution, was to focus the attention of the Trotskyist movement not on the task of mobilizing the working class to overthrow the bureaucracy but on searching for liberal allies within the ranks of the privileged caste.

The capitulatory nature of the statement was clearly revealed in the following passage: “The Fourth International, while welcoming the results of the Twentieth Congress without sectarianism, has no illusions. It knows that the struggle for the genuine renewal of proletarian democracy will be a long one. But the Fourth International has shown that it has all the tenacity that is required.”[9]

In fact, the whole statement was nothing but an exercise in wishful thinking, an attempt to suggest that the restoration of Soviet democracy was a matter of achieving a proper balance between the actions of an expanding reformist tendency of the bureaucracy and the pressure of the Soviet working class.

The unequaled ability of Ernest Mandel to obscure fundamental social contradictions and develop out of his journalistic impressions the most complicated political schemes for the regeneration of the Soviet bureaucracy found its quintessential expression in a report which he delivered to the seventeenth plenum of the Pabloite International Executive Committee in May 1956.

Like a prospector mining for gold, Mandel scoured the Soviet bureaucracy in search of those liberal tendencies that had been assigned the decisive role in the regeneration of the Soviet Union. Sifting through the multitude of tendencies, “left” and “right” within the bureaucracy, from that of “Mikoyan-Malenkov” to that of “Kaganovich-Molotov,” Mandel proclaimed:

Clearly the bureaucracy cannot be considered as one “reactionary mass” which the working class will have to attack all at once. This mechanistic and anti-Marxist position is contrary to everything Trotsky taught. The more the pressure of the masses (and, parallel to it, the pressure of the most privileged layers) increases, the more the bureaucracy, including its leaders, will split into conflicting tendencies. In the course of this process a “Reiss tendency” will appear which will sincerely realign itself with the Leninist tradition. The Mikoyan tendency certainly cannot be identified as such a tendency; at most it provides a culture medium for the ideas of such a tendency to develop. It is impossible to predict the exact comportment of every Kremlin leader in the course of this process; but it is excluded that a return to democracy will come about gradually, coldly, without overt action by the masses against the bureaucracy, without splits in the CP and in the bureaucracy itself.

Events have completely confirmed the correctness of the view we defended since 1953 on this subject of the decisive role of pressure of the masses in the internal evolution of the USSR. Some of our so-called orthodox critics tried to explain these events as the result of internal dissensions in the bureaucracy. Today it is clear how untenable this position is, and how it is this position itself which actually favors tendencies to capitulate to Stalinism.[10]

Far from moving away from their revisionist moorings, the Pabloites specifically upheld the positions that had produced the split in 1953, stating openly that their line on the Khrushchev revelations was a continuation of their old perspective. And, in this, they were correct. The divisions between orthodox Trotskyism and Pabloism had grown deeper by 1956. Moreover, the rebellion of the Polish working class in the autumn of that year, followed immediately by the eruption of the Hungarian Revolution, demonstrated that the Pabloite line constituted a betrayal of the working class.


Moscow Trials Anthology (London: New Park Publications, 1967), pp. 17–18.


James P. Cannon, Speeches for Socialism (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), pp. 143–146.


Ibid., pp. 149–151.


Ibid., pp. 156–157.


National Education Department Socialist Workers Party, Education for Socialists: The Struggle to Reunify the Fourth International (1954–63), vol. 2, February 1978, p. 31.


Cannon, Speeches for Socialism, pp. 171–173.


Leon Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International: The Transitional Program (New York: Labor Publications, 1981), p. 33.


SWP, The Struggle to Reunify, vol. 2, p. 54.


Ibid., p. 56.


Ibid., p. 59.